Why Opting Out Isn’t Really an Option

In the 15 February Science Magazine, Phyllis Moen reviews the book “Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home” by Pamela Stone. Stone examines the phenomenon of women leaving successful to stay home by actually interviewing the women who opt out. As Moen writes:

Social scientists have documented the work and family pressures women experience, as well as the costs to women’s careers of scaling back or leaving the workforce. But until now no one has systematically investigated the actual dropouts. Thus all the analyses of the stress experienced by employed women …tend to underestimate the presence, depth, and consequences of such chronic strains. …

“Often there is a precipitating event…another pregnancy, a husband’s career shift that requires relocation, a sick child, an automobile accident, a new (nonsupportive) boss, an increased need to travel on the job. For other women, exits are preceded by the slow, steady toll of too much to do, too little sleep, and too often careening from one deadline, meeting, or pediatrician appointment to the next. Their stories do not reflect a shift in values; opting out is not about their desire to return to the Ozzie and Harriet family of the 1950s. Stone lets the women speak for themselves, providing a deft analysis of the impossibilities they face. …
Given the way jobs and career paths are structured, it is difficult if not impossible for women (or men) to manage effectively as professionals, as part of a dual-earning couple, and as parents without burning out. Stone concludes that the women she studied did not opt out, but were effectively pushed out...

(bold emphases mine)

So the system stinks. It demands the impossible of us. When we see a mom leave the lab bench, professoriate, engineering firm, or courtroom, she’s not gaily deciding to spend more time baking cookies. She’s agonized, stressed out, exhausted. She’s probably reached her breaking point. Given the unrelenting demands of her family and her job, she’s decided that the job has to go, because she has moral and legal obligations to take care of her family.

But I’ll argue that those women who do “opt out” are relatively lucky. At least they have the appearance of a choice. The unspoken phenomenon behind the woman who “opts out” of a high powered career is a partner with an equally high, if not higher, earning career. The junior engineer can stay home with her children because her husband is also an engineer or a lawyer or a doctor. These women who “opt out” will be economically secure as long as they stay married to a high earning husband (and he is not laid off, disabled, etc.).

What about women who don’t have a high earning partner? They are facing all the same career and family pressures as those dual high income families, maybe more. Now the woman can’t afford to hire a nanny or a house keeper, because her income is necessary to put food on the table, pay the mortgage, and provide health insurance. The woman’s income becomes pivotal to sustaining her family economically and opting out or even being pushed out is not an option. So she just has to keep going and going, dealing with all those chronic and acute stresses, “careening from one deadline, meeting, or pediatrician appointment to the next.” For ever and ever, without end.

All the talk of opting out and the “mommy wars” between stay-at-home and working moms brings a sour taste to my mouth, because it hits close to home (that is to say the pocketbook). [My husband] Fish’s take home pay is somewhere in the neighborhood of $1600/month. If we had stayed in Utopia where our mortgage was cheaper and we could have done with one car, could I have afforded not to work? Our mortgage was ~$800/month, car insurance and gas for one car would have been ~$150, and utilities ran about $150. Let’s say we spent $200 on food – we certainly wouldn’t have been eating from the local co-op, but we could get by. That would leave $300/month for any doctor’s bills, clothes, travel, fun, savings for retirement, home and car repairs. I’m sure that plenty of people get by on less discretionary income, but it wasn’t a place that Fish and I felt comfortable putting ourselves and our child.

So I work. And because my passion and my training is science, that’s where I work. And in science, you don’t get to work part-time or take extended maternity leaves. You write grants, revise papers, teach classes, mentor students, and worry about tenure. On spring break, you grade exams and when you are putting your child to sleep, you mentally write a discussion section. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, but wouldn’t it be nice if…

Stone’s account in Opting Out? highlights the need for employees to be able to customize their career paths. Which universities, centers, corporations, and agencies will develop increased work-time flexibilities and creative possibilities that offer employees meaningful engagement at every stage of their lives? Meeting that challenge will benefit families, businesses, and societies alike.”

That challenge becomes even more imperative when we remember that opting out isn’t even within the realm of possibilities for most people.

*Hat tip: ScienceGrandma


  1. #1 Mike
    March 4, 2008

    The word “dropout” has a very negative connotation. That the authors would use that word implies a bias against mothers who choose to leave their careers. “But until now no one has systematically investigated the actual dropouts. ”

  2. #2 randy
    March 4, 2008


    why doesn’t husband opt out then. Many people make it (within the professoriate) on single incomes.

  3. #3 Derek James
    March 4, 2008

    So the system stinks. It demands the impossible of us.

    Why is it the system that stinks? Isn’t this state of affairs just a logical consequent of a professional career and raising children both being extremely demanding and time-consuming?

    How exactly should the system be revised to allow you to do the impossible? Why not either delay having children until you’re more financially secure, or forego children if a career is that important? Or, the highest wage earner works, while the other either works part-time or not at all.

    Seems to me that the problem is not necessarily with the system, but with the choices people make.

  4. #4 FEP
    March 4, 2008

    The system does take its pound of flesh, but we do make choices. It sounds like you chose a research intensive institution. You choose to mentally rewrite while you’re putting children to bed. Maybe you should give yourself permission to turn off that part of your brain every once and a while.

    Furthermore, there are pluses that you maybe haven’t acknowledged yet. I was at a playdate (I played hookey one morning so my daughter could socialize a bit more with her preschool classmates) and all the mothers were bemoaning the fact that they couldn’t find jobs (they were from the nursing field) that fit between the 8:30-3:30 school bus schedules. As an academic,I’ve got the kind of job that gives me the flexibility to sneak out for a playdate or dance class or stay at home till my kids get on the bus. And at a salary far above what most women are able to earn.

    Yes, it’s really really hard balancing all the aspects of our lives, but there are a lot of things to be thankful for.

  5. #5 Cherish
    March 4, 2008

    I’ve been very lucky with my MS program. My advisor was happy to take me on despite the fact that I was homeschooling my older son. He knew the situation before I started the program, and let me take 1-2 classes each semester. Even with that, I had another child after my first year. This meant I was still stressed out, it slowed up my husband’s dissertation, and I’m having lots of fun medical problems. My doctor says it’s going to keep on until I finish school. (I worry that it’ll keep on until my children leave home.)

    There was a recent article in Science on part-time careers. I really think if this were an option for more people, there would be less “dropouts” and many more happy families.

    Sometimes I wonder how many kids see what their parents go through to keep a career in science and think, “There’s no way I want to do that.”

  6. #6 PhysioProf
    March 4, 2008

    Their stories do not reflect a shift in values; opting out is not about their desire to return to the Ozzie and Harriet family of the 1950s.

    It’s worth pointing out that this “shift in values” garbaggio is nothing more than depraved right-wing propaganda designed to fool and shame women into leaving the workplace.

  7. #7 mxracer652
    March 4, 2008

    Why is it the system that stinks? Isn’t this state of affairs just a logical consequent of a professional career and raising children both being extremely demanding and time-consuming?

    You’re going to be labeled a heretic for pointing out the obvious.

  8. #8 Toni
    March 4, 2008

    I agree. The system stinks. We “choose” to do research, and research is a more than full time job. Other countries structure their labs so some people can do very good research and “only” work full time. We’ve designed the system so it only works well for people who don’t want or need to see their kids regularly. I am happier now that I’ve left. I can see my kids and still be in science, although not research… But I did not have the choice. It was my only option if I wanted to stay sane, and be a scientists and a mother.

  9. #9 another female -ologist
    March 4, 2008

    Woah there.

    Some of the above comments show that some people have absolutely NO clue about biological clocks or the realities of academic pay in expensive locations OR the fact that it can be damn near impossible for a spouse to find a well-paying job in the same location as his/her partner. So barring independent wealth, by the time you’re financially secure enough to have a child (as a female scientist or professional), often as not you’re pushing the limits of your child-bearing years.

    – another (pregnant, tenure track, early 30’s, not rich, makes more money than her husband does) female -ologist

  10. #10 ukko
    March 4, 2008

    One of the big things is that people need to recognize that kids and families are not a choice across any population. Expecting anyone to forgo a family in order to have a successful career is also terribly misguided from a social position.

    What we are really looking at is a sort of market distortion where half the household’s production that was not moving through the primary economy now is. One example we were talking about recently in our family is elder-care, lots of the dusty old photos from before I was born include Great-Grandma Whoever who came to live out her last few years with the family. That only worked because the stay-at-home mom could pick up the nursing responsibilities, with a two earner household that now needs to be outsourced and paid for.

    On a macro level this is all a big win for society, before women were forced to be generalists and not to follow their aptitudes. Now women lead much more productive lives by being able to fully participate in the economy, but where we fail as a society in making policy decisions is that we do not account for the “free” work we were getting before and make stupid decisions as a result.

  11. #11 ukko
    March 4, 2008

    Whoa, didn’t finish the rant they before I hit post.

    The point is that those who are defending the system and saying that it is just an obvious price to pay to be in a “challenging professional” career are just wrong because you are ignoring a huge set of externalities and real costs in life.

    I had best stop now before I get going the the difference between actual productivity and the bad proxies we use to measure it.

  12. #12 randy
    March 4, 2008

    I will repost my question in a less personal way:

    Why don’t husbands opt out to help wives? I have seen it done. and again, there is little reason why folks can’t survive on one income (in one of those incomes is coming from decent tenure track job)

  13. #13 Rebecca
    March 4, 2008

    To answer Randy’s question, there are men who do opt out to help their wives. My husband is a stay-at-home dad, and we live comfortably on my income.

    I think he faces more discrimination in his chosen vocation than I do in mine (computational scientist). When he goes out in public with our son, he is bombarded with advice, like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Sometimes people praise him for “babysitting” his son. There’s a woman in our neighborhood who was so horrified that he’s a stay-at-home dad that she stopped speaking to him after she found out.

    A lot of men think he’s lazy. I suspect that my mother-in-law thinks he’s mooching off my goodwill. Most of the working women whom I tell about our arrangement think it’s awesome, and most of the men feel threatened. He hasn’t tried to join any playgroups yet, which is probably a good plan, because stay-at-home fathers are commonly shunned by stay-at-home mothers.

    Basically, he sticks out like a sore thumb for defying society’s stereotypes, and he pays for it whenever he leaves the house. I can understand many men’s reluctance to stay at home, because it’s unpaid, unglamorous, non-prestigious work. But, the more men do it, the easier it will be for the next man to do it too.

  14. #14 daedalus2u
    March 4, 2008

    I think a big part of the problem is that policies determining how science is funded and how kudos in science is awarded are directed at favoring those with good competition skills, not those who do the best science.

    One way to compete better is to spend more time at it. Two scientists of equivalent skill will have very different “productivity” if one spends 40 hours a week working and the other spends 60 or 80. The senior scientist PI who badgers his/her students/postdocs into working 60 or 80 hour weeks will be more productive than one who doesn’t.

    It is exactly like the manufacturer who runs a sweat shop, pays slave wages, forces uncompensated overtime and offers no benefits. His company will generate more manufactured articles per unit of wages than a company who pays living wages and offers benefits. Substitute “science” or “research findings” for manufactured articles and “research grants” for wages and the analogy is identical.

    However, those who are doing well in the present set-up are not going to let it be changed.

  15. #15 Carrie
    March 4, 2008

    What I find frustrating about the work overload factor (having children AND trying to establish a career at the same time), is that theoretically they DON’T have to happen at the same time. The 5-10 years that you spend as an early faculty member (pre-tenure) *could*, in theory, be delayed until your children were older (school-aged — not that school-aged children don’t require your time, but it is easier than an infant). Given that we spend 40-50 years as productive workers, a 5 year ‘time out’ blip in that period shouldn’t matter.

    But it does. And there’s the rub. And it really matters more for women than for men, because women are the childbearers. And that’s where I get frustrated. If I could have taken 5 years off to be a ‘Mom’ fulltime and THEN gone back to be a professional scientist, I think we all would have been better off. But the reward system won’t let you do that.

  16. #16 PhysioProf
    March 4, 2008

    Why don’t husbands opt out to help wives?

    Last I checked, we live in a soul-deadening patriarchy. Do you know something I don’t?

  17. #17 randy
    March 4, 2008


    I think that is a cop out

  18. #18 Derek James
    March 4, 2008

    Again…what is inherently wrong with the system and how (specifically) do you want it changed?

    It sounds like some people want to either 1) have a professional career that’s not all that demanding, or 2) have free, universal child care.

  19. #19 PhysioProf
    March 4, 2008

    I think that is a cop out

    I have absolutely no idea what that is supposed to mean. Are you confusing reasons with justifications?

    Again…what is inherently wrong with the system and how (specifically) do you want it changed?

    It sounds like some people want to either 1) have a professional career that’s not all that demanding, or 2) have free, universal child care.

    What people want is for men and women to bear the burden of child-rearing equally. And it is key to recognize that this burden is not only “who changes the diapers”, but also an entire set of structural features of the academic world that include, but are not limited to, the different attitudes of other academics to women versus men with children.

  20. #20 Jane Doh
    March 4, 2008

    I think what people want is a little flexibility. The ability to take a few years off of a 40-50 year working career, and still be able to get a science job. Career vs. childcare/eldercare shouldn’t have to be a one time decision that sets a career path in stone. Likewise, there are many jobs that could permit flextime/telework that would be greatly helpful to anyone with non-work responsibilities, but don’t. In other countries and at other times, it is/was possible to be a successful scientist without working more than 50 hours a week most of the time. Why do we force 80-90 hour work weeks on people when it causes many to burn out?

    Social acceptance of different family decisions so stay-at-home and primary caretaker Dads aren’t thought of as slackers at best. If Dads as primary caretakers became socially acceptable, I think more people would try it. But since identity is so caught up in career, I think it is hard for many men to visualize staying home as a viable option.

    I know I would like support for paid family leave. I got no paid maternity leave, and when I was out of vacation and sick leave, I came back to work. Now, almost a year and a half later, I still have practically no vacation or sick leave banked, so I come in to work as long as I can stay upright, knowing that I am exposing my coworkers, but having no choice if I want to keep my job (it is not in academia). Some of my coworkers have sick parents/children/siblings they use all their leave for and are in the same situation.

    Something has to give–since there are fewer stay-at-home adults, and people are living longer, this will be more and more of a problem. Even if your relative is in a fulltime care facility, someone needs to oversee their money, their healthcare, and their general well-being to make sure that everything is OK, and many of those things must be done during the workday.

  21. #21 ScienceWoman
    March 4, 2008

    It sounds like some people want to either 1) have a professional career that’s not all that demanding, or 2) have free, universal child care.

    What would be wrong with that?

    Why don’t husbands opt out to help wives?

    Ah, the subject of my next post…although I think Rebecca’s comment above speaks pretty well to one reason they might resist it…nobody likes being ostracized by society. Physioprof is also succintly on point.

  22. #22 anonymous10
    March 4, 2008

    Let’s not forget the many/more of us with issues other than children: medical problems, financial problems, caretaking, temporary personal/family crisis, you name it. All you need to do is get shoved off the overcrowded train for two seconds and wham! train leaves the station and it ain’t coming back. This is bigger than just kids or family. It’s about the fact that academic research has low odds of success at the best of times, and is only feasible long term for a healthy, lucky, middle-class, well-connected person with family/spouse obligations that bend entirely around them. And yes, those tend to be white men, for obvious reasons.

  23. #23 ScienceWoman
    March 4, 2008

    Very good point. Zuska has an excellent post on this topic:

  24. #24 Suricou Raven
    March 4, 2008

    I predict that within one week I will read a blogger or commenter elsewhere trying to argue that all these problems could be solved by banning non-abstinance sex-ed.

  25. #25 Suricou Raven
    March 4, 2008

    (Which, I note, would work: All those women who are accidentially pregnent before they complete college certinly wont have to be torn between career and family, because the choice will be made for them in advance.)

  26. #26 Kate
    March 4, 2008

    Great point anonymous10. People get up in arms about the kid stuff particularly (just look at the first few comments), because of the way our society is currently drinking the “there is such a thing as choice feminism” kool aid.

    And Rebecca, I’m so glad you shared your story of your stay at home partner. I recently admitted to a friend that sometimes when I see my husband hold my friend’s baby I want to take the baby and hold her myself… because I’m the woman and I’m the one who “knows better.” She told me this is the “consolation prize” many moms have convinced themselves they have a right to in order for them to be able to bear the impenetrable patriarchy of our culture. I wonder if this is where the stay at home mom hostility comes from — some of the consolation prize stuff, and perhaps also some jealousy that some other het relationship with kids actually worked things out so that the man took more responsibility for the childrearing.

    ScienceWoman, this was a really great post. I’m glad you told us about the book, and despite the hostility/defensiveness of some commenters, it’s clear that what you’re trying to do here is AVOID the ways SAHMs and working moms are pitted against each other.

  27. #27 Twice
    March 4, 2008

    Well, I choose to have an academic career and I choose to have children. Guilty. What is unreasonable and needs to be changed is that my male, childless, department chair doesn’t believe people can work on their classes or grading or writing at home. Another unreasonable thing that needs to be changed is the time I heard him say “Well, I didn’t know she was pregnant when I hired her. If I had known that…” about a part-time instructor who was due two months after the *end* of the course she was hired to teach. This is the kind of crap we could all live without.

  28. #28 Flicka Mawa
    March 5, 2008

    I quite enjoyed the post and all of the comments. Thanks for posting it, Sciencewoman!

  29. #29 Flicka Mawa
    March 5, 2008

    For people skeptical of the idea of a “less demanding professional career,” you may be interested in this article from December’s Science magazine on part-time science careers.

  30. #30 LauraJMixon
    March 5, 2008

    Derek James: “How exactly should the system be revised to allow you to do the impossible? Why not either delay having children until you’re more financially secure, or forego children if a career is that important? Or, the highest wage earner works, while the other either works part-time or not at all.”

    Derek, why is it only women who are forced to make this Hobson’s choice? Why is it that men can have both a high-powered career that allows them to make a major contribution in their field, and a family, but women cannot?

  31. #31 Joy
    March 5, 2008

    Another financial reason not to opt out is that even if you don’t make that much money, the costs of opting out are usually much higher than just your salary, and in particular include forgone retirement savings that really add up. I get irritated when people say the cost of daycare is as much as they are earning, and so it isn’t worth having a job. Maybe, except that they often don’t include the costs of not saving for retirement.

    In my case, my wife (not legal) is a MA student, so I did need to keep working since I’m the sole wageearner. But also, even if she had a job, she is not a legal parent to our child, and it is unlikely an employer in her field would offer domestic partnership benefits, so for things like healthcare I need to stay employed.

    I actually have no desire to stay home with my child full-time, however I really do wish it were easier to go on something like part-time status in academia for a few years. I’m on research leave right now, and it is so nice and flexible when it comes to adding in more time with my daughter. It would be great to negotiate a tenure hold for a few years and a reduced teaching or responsibility load during that time in order to acknowledge a period of intense non-career committment (whether children, or parents, or illness, or whatever).

  32. #32 Mommyprof
    March 9, 2008

    Well, I think I sure got pushed out. But we are considering my not opting back in for the sake of the family…

  33. #33 steppen wolf
    March 17, 2008

    There is a way to solve this problem, but no right-winged government on earth wants to spend on it, even if it is proven to work (Northern European countries are a good example).

    The solution is called affordable, subsidized childcare.

    A woman has only a limited time available to have a kid and a family before her eggs become too old. And unfortunately, that is the most stressful time in her career, especially if we are talking about science.

    Men can “choose” to have kids whenever they want, but women can’t. And men will not stay at home – especially if they earn more then their wife, which is usually the case, as this is a strong economic disincentive.

    Childcare is the only solution here. When the state pitches in – without necessarily putting another burden on the employers – then it is possible, even for low-earners, to work AND have a family (and possibly save for retirement/their kid’s education?).

    Once this happens, then we can really start talking about “choice”.

    I know that some people will say that, as they do not want to have children, they would not want to pay taxes to subsidize those who do. But they are ignoring that the aging of the population is also a big problem, as it causes a significant increase in public spending (see pensions, Japan is a good example of this problem). A younger working population (which means, an increased birthrate) is part of the solution to that.

  34. #34 rb
    March 17, 2008

    While I don’t disagree (in fact I agree) that quality affordable childcare is needed, I have three simple observations

    subsidize childcare? then pay my wife for staying at home seems only fair

    men have unlimited time to have children? last I looked my wife was the same age as I am, so her clock is my clock (since my plan after 25 years of marriage is to make 50 or more, if I am lucky enough to live long enough)

    child production as a means to solve aging population issues: this is a pyramid scheme that will harm us in the end. bottom line, forget about retirement it was only a short window of opportunity for Post WWII to early baby boomers.

  35. #35 techne
    March 31, 2008

    There is a perception underlying a lot of the anti-family institutional biases: that taking a year or two “off” dooms a scientist to irrelevance. I have no idea why people believe this, it’s so patently false–look how accepted it is for someone to switch research foci or expand into a new subject area. That involves a whole lot more than just catching up with a year of techniques and literature.

    rb, to society, there is a difference between subsidizing childcare and paying someone to stay at home. Subsidies are an investment in a worker’s productivity and hence in the larger economy. “Pay[ing] your wife to stay at home” isn’t.

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